British media shamed by 'squalid' phone hack claims

6th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Britain's media on Wednesday engaged in a rare bout of introspection following "shameful" claims that the country's top-selling Sunday newspaper hacked the phone of a missing girl who was later found dead.

While most of Fleet Street mused upon a low ebb in the history of British journalism, some papers steered clear of commenting on the allegations against the News of the World, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International.

The Times, also owned by the news group, previously believed it "ought not to comment" on the ongoing crisis, but broke its silence on Wednesday to deplore the "reprehensible" allegations revealed by Tuesday's Guardian newspaper.

The paper's editorial said if claims were true that the tabloid hacked Milly Dowler's phone after she went missing in 2002, then "there will not be a journalist in the country who, after the warranted anger, will not feel shamed and depressed."

The remains of 13-year-old Dowler were found six months later, although it was not until last month that her killer Levi Bellfield was convicted.

According to The Guardian, private investigators and journalists listened to increasingly desperate messages on Dowler's phone left by her parents and friends as the days went by without any word from her.

"Questions about journalistic integrity will now occupy public attention for some time to come, but the anguish of the Dowler family is happening now," said The Times.

"It was, surely, the least they deserved that (they) might have been left as free of this awful case as they can ever be," it added. "They have been denied even that small mercy. This is beyond reprehensible."

The Daily Mail called the episode "a most squalid and shameful saga" which "besmirches the whole British newspaper industry".

The Sun, also from the News International stable and closely linked to the News of the World, was notably the only paper not to carry the story on its front page.

Tuesday's allegations were the latest in a string of hacking claims against the Sunday tabloid, but the realisation that the victims were not only celebrities and politicians has led to universal outrage.

British papers have been reluctant to comment on the allegations, fearing wider implications, and broadsheet The Telegraph declined from editorial comment Wednesday but carried fresh allegations on its front page.

Writing in The Guardian, Simon Jenkins revealed concern over the ramifications for British journalism and explored whether the crisis was a consequence of the seismic shift in the way news has been collected since the Internet's rise.

The writer said in a comment piece that even hard-nosed Fleet Street veterans found the allegations "amazing" but that they reflected the pressure being exerted on the print media by the "trillions of signals flooding the web".

"The case for a continuing profession of journalism is that there is public value in the marshalling and editing of information by disciplined media institutions," he wrote.

"It must believe in readers who will value, and ultimately pay for, quality reporting and comment. Tarnish that belief, and we really are out of a job," he concluded.

© 2011 AFP

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